‘My Good Health’ — Part IX
The published letters of Robert Louis Stevenson by the Yale University Press (1995), edited by Bradford A. Booth and Earnest Mayhew, commit 146 pages from Vol. VI to the letters the author of “Treasure Island” wrote while he and his family passed the winter of 1887-88 as tenants of the Baker family on present day Stevenson Lane in Saranac Lake. The next to the last of these letters is addressed to Mark Twain, another famous former resident of this village. At the time, Twain was living in Hartford, Connecticut:
“c. 12 April 1888, My dear Mark Twain, I should have written a great while ago to the author of Huckleberry Finn — a book which I have read four times, and am quite ready to begin again tomorrow. … All this, which comes to pen so readily, has nothing to do with my present purpose, which is merely to say that I am now leaving my Patmos and shall be from Thursday next for about a week in the St. Stephen Hotel East 11th Street, N.Y. (pray keep the address a secret — I cannot see many people) where if you are in the way, I should be rejoiced to see you.”
Twain replied: “I will run down and see you…and thank you for writing Kidnapped and Treasure Island and for liking ‘Huckleberry’ …” Twain wrote in his autobiography that he and RLS spent “an hour or more” shooting the breeze on a bench in Washington Square. But Stevenson’s request to Twain (“pray keep the address secret — I cannot see many people”) indicates that he was still in a frail condition even after admitting that he had just “passed a better winter than for years” in this backwoods frost-bitten hamlet to which he expected to return to do some healthy summertime camping in the woods, advice he had taken from his Adirondack physician, Dr. E.L. Trudeau.
In the meantime, Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, was far away in California, visiting her younger sister Mrs. Nellie Sanchez. When Louis and Fanny were having their farewell ceremony on the day she left to go there, husband asked wife to keep a lookout for a boat to charter for their projected South Seas cruise. This fantastic scheme had been cooked up during the winter in conversations with Mr. Samuel McClure, a publisher from New York City who made several visits to Saranac Lake to get to know better the new celebrity author of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” It was with McClure’s influence that Robert Louis Stevenson made his fateful decision in Andrew Baker’s living room, to voyage under sail halfway around the world and down under to the South Seas at a time when they were little known. By the spring of 1888, it was not a matter of “if” but “when.”
But it was all just a daydream until something tangible like a seaworthy vessel and reliable crew materialized somewhere. For the present, Louis was satisfied just to get out of town for a spring change. The first thing he wanted to do was to visit his old friend, Will Hickock Low, an active artist in New York. Their friendship had begun in June, 1875, upon their first meeting in Paris, France. When Stevenson came to America 12 years later with his family, Low was there to meet them dockside on Sept. 7, 1887. A month later it was Low who made their riverboat reservations to start them on their journey north into these mountains. Low was among those who kept the author supplied that winter with certain amenities unavailable in this frontier town, things like Margarita, Stevenson’s favorite cigarette tobacco plus rolling papers, coffee, cheese, crackers, fruit, writing paper, sheet music, quality alcohol, books, etc. In later years, Low would write his book “A Chronicle of Friendships” and dedicate a chapter to what happened next, the title to be “The Return from Saranac.”
“Almost before the passage of time was realized, April had come, and our friends were once more occupying their former quarters in the Hotel St. Stephen in Eleventh Street, which by this time had come to be known among the intimates as the Hotel St. Stevenson. The improvement in the physical condition of Stevenson was evident. He was still obliged to exercise precaution against overfatigue, but he could venture out in the middle of the day, and was able to see more people than on his previous visit.”
Life in lower Manhattan was a radical change for Stevenson the exile, fresh from his winter “Patmos” in Saranac Lake. It was indeed the remedy for the advanced case of cabin fever he had by the time he learned that his friend, the innkeeper George Berkeley, had been shot dead from ambush in present day Riverside Park. Stevenson also knew that the urban environment in which he had voluntarily placed himself would eventually work against his health objectives; but for the present those concerns had less priority than reuniting with friends.
One of those friends was the Irish-born sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens who was already busy doing a Stevenson medallion from drawings he had made of his subject at the St. Stephen Hotel the previous autumn, just before Stevenson came to Saranac Lake. After his return, it was St. Gaudens who arranged for his Scottish invalid celebrity friend to meet the biggest American war hero he would ever meet — Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army, retired. St. Gaudens knew about Stevenson’s interest in military history and RLS experts agree that he probably would have done some military history writing of his own had he been given more years. One of the last books Stevenson had read in Saranac Lake was Sherman’s Memoirs for the second time, so that meeting in the sculptor’s studio was lively on both sides. Will Low wrote in his book: “Evidently, however, the visit had been highly satisfactory, to them both, for Stevenson at once turned the conversation to the General’s book and, as between fellow authors, the conversation had been animated … to find, however, that this man of deeds, having laid by the sword, was a simple gentleman, touched him deeply.”
Will Low had routinely gone to visit his friend every morning at the hotel since he had checked into the place. He writes in his book that “Toward the end of April, I was greeted on entering the room one morning with ‘Low, you must get me out of this.'” Too much springtime in the city had caught up to Louis. Low observed that: “Stevenson needed an instant change and from various suggestions that I made, the description of a place on the Jersey coast pleased him the most, and he asked me to arrange for his going thither, ‘the sooner the better.’ And so within a week, he, his mother, his stepson, and the faithful maid, Valentine Roch, were under the hospitable roof of my good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright, at Manasquan.”
Manasquan is on the New Jersey shore with great beaches and the sea air was just the change Low knew Louis needed. “The weather was only intermittently good from my point of view,” said Low, “but Stevenson found it to his liking, and was much out-of-doors.” It was early May and the waves of summer tourists escaping the big city had yet to arrive. The Wainwrights owned and operated the Union House hotel and their early guests had practically the run of the place including the catboats on the river next to it. To further improve things, two more of Stevenson’s artist friends came down to join the party, namely, Canadian born Wyatt Eaton and St. Gaudens again.
One sunny May day, these four friends, with shared memories of youth in France, were having lunch on a patio by the sea when the telegram arrived from Stevenson’s wife in California. Louis gave it to Low, saying, “Read that aloud.” Low writes in his book that “I read, in its brief terms, that a serviceable schooner-yacht could be had in San Francisco for a cruise in the Pacific. ‘What will you do?’ was my query, and the answer came at once, ‘Go, of course.'”
That was the turning point, when Saranac Lake instantly became a memory instead of a return destination. That very night, Stevenson and Low went for a long walk on the beach. Will Low gets the last word:
“We had not spoken for a moment, and alone, we two upon the beach, the world seemed very large, the sea boundless and the sky without limit, when Louis broke the silence:
‘Low, I wish to live! Life is better than art, to do things is better than to imagine them, yes, or to describe them. And God knows, I have not lived all these last years. No one knows, no one can know the tedium of it. I’ve supported it as I could — I don’t think that I am apt to whimper — but to be, even as I am now, is not to live. Yes, that’s what art is good for, for without my work, I suppose that I would have given up long ago. …There’s England over there’ with a gesture seaward, ‘and I’ve left it — perhaps I may never go back–and there on the other side of this big continent there’s another sea rolling in. I loved the Pacific in the days when I was at Monterey, and perhaps now it will love me a little. I am going to meet it; ever since I was a boy the South Seas have laid a spell upon me and though you have seen me all the weeks low enough in my mind, I begin to feel a dawn of hope. …'”